New Chinese Interpol chief sparks rights concerns

NUSA DUA, Indonesia - A Chinese security official was elected president of Interpol Thursday for the first time, sparking criticism from activists who say Beijing uses the agency to track down dissidents abroad.

Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei was chosen as the new head of the global police organisation at its annual general assembly on the Indonesian island of Bali, France-headquartered Interpol announced.

He is the first Chinese official to hold the post, China's official Xinhua news agency said, and takes over from Frenchwoman Mireille Ballestrazzi.

While it could provide a boost to China's campaign to hunt alleged economic criminals abroad as part of a much-publicised anti-graft drive, rights groups raised concerns that Beijing's intentions may be more sinister.

"It's worrying in the sense that for a long time, China has been using... Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad," William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, told AFP.

"We have looked at cases in the past where it seems that China has abused Interpol's system to target particularly Uighur dissidents who, as far as we know, have committed no crime under international standards.

"That's a worrying precedent that might be used towards people from other walks of life."

The mostly Muslim Uighur minority in the Chinese region of Xinjiang have long complained of religious and cultural repression. Many have fled the northwestern region in recent years, often heading to Central or Southeast Asia.

China has been seeking international help for its secretive campaign to track down alleged white-collar criminals abroad, including corrupt officials. Known as "Operation Fox Hunt", it has netted large numbers of fugitives.

However the drive has also proved controversial in some countries that say Chinese law enforcement agents have been operating covertly on their soil without the approval or consent of local authorities.

Amnesty's Nee said that having a Chinese official in the top job at Interpol could be aimed at helping in this campaign.

But he expressed concerns that the drive was being carried out through the Communist Party's feared internal watchdog, and with the use of its own investigative system that operates without judicial oversight.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang congratulated Meng on his appointment, noting China enjoyed "close communication and co-operation with Interpol and its member states.

"We attach high importance to the role played by Interpol, and would like to shoulder more responsibility and contribute more in the field of law enforcement and security."

After taking power in 2012, Xi launched a massive anti-corruption drive that has led to the punishment of over a million officials, although it has raised questions about whether the president is a reformer or is carrying out a ruthless political purge.

Interpol is an intergovernmental organisation that acts as a network connecting the law enforcement agencies of its 190 member countries. It does not have agents of its own with powers of arrest.